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The Past, Present, and Future of Race, Punishment, and Criminal Justice in the United States

Instructors: Taneisha Means, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Vassar College, and Carolyn Carr, Adjunct Faculty of History, SUNY Westchester Community College

Course Description: This course provides an overview of the U.S. justice system by facilitating learning and questioning about the justice system and the centrality of race, ethnicity, and politics in the system. We begin with examining the roots of the modern justice system and its place within the broader U.S. government framework. In part II of the course, we explore how the current system functions and study the experiences of justice-involved people. Specifically, we cover the legal processes and actors significant to the system, such as police officers, lawyers, jurors, and judges. Moreover, we humanize and witness the experiences of individuals who are/have been detained, incarcerated, and on probation/parole to identify critical lessons that can inform our thinking about the role and practice of punishment in the United States. The course concludes by studying historical and contemporary efforts to reform and abolish the system.

The Meaning of Value

Instructors: Mark Cleaveland, Associate Professor of Psychology, Vassar College, and Marybeth McDonough, Adjunct Faculty of English, SUNY Orange Community College

Course Description: What guides our choices? What gives those choices meaning? In this course we will unpack these two seemingly simple questions from the perspectives of evolution, psychology, and literature, and we will discover frameworks for understanding how value shapes our experiences. Literature is replete with characters who seek to make sense of their own choices. When we identify with character and situations within the context of a story, we can apply that understanding to our own decisions in life. Similarly, in evolutionary theory, animals (including people) behave for reasons of “fitness.” What does this mean, and how does it apply to humans? For example, is autism an adaptation? What about depression? Finally, in psychological theories, animals (including people) behave for reasons of motivation or reinforcement. Do these processes help us understand our initial two questions? For example, if people make choices in order to achieve rewards, why do they sometimes regret these same choices? Taken together, evolution, psychology, and literature speak to the meaning of value – a concept that is forever shaping the form of our living.